Erdogan seeks Turkish voters’ support in fierce power struggle

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Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan looks set to win Sunday’s municipal elections that have become a crisis referendum on his 10-year rule as he tries to ward off graft allegations and stem a stream of damaging security leaks.

Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party blame the leaks on “traitors” embedded in the Turkish state and he has been crisscrossing the nation of 77 million during weeks of hectic campaigning to rally his conservative core voters.

“They are all traitors,” Erdogan said of his opponents at a rally in Istanbul, Turkey’s commercial capital, on Saturday. “Let them do what they want. Go to the ballot box tomorrow and teach all of them a lesson. Let’s give them an Ottoman slap.”

Erdogan has purged some 7,000 people from the judiciary and police since anti-graft raids in December targeting businessmen close to him and sons of ministers. He blames this on US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally, who he says is using supporters in the police to try to topple the government.

AK’s main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), portrays Erdogan as a corrupt dictator ready to hang on to power by any means. Capture of the capital Ankara or Istanbul would allow them to claim some form of victory.

As voting got underway in western Turkey at 8 AM, an hour later than in the east, some voters subscribed to Erdogan’s belief that he is the victim of a plot to unseat him.

“You have to look at why they want to unseat the government now. Turkey is a new state, it is getting stronger and the big countries don’t want that,” said Vahap Selbuk, 20, a student preparing for university entrance exams.

On a sunny morning at a school in the central Istanbul commercial district of Sisli, others saw the election as an opportunity to express their opposition to Erdogan’s government.

“We expect a ray of hope in the elections. Even if the AK Party vote doesn’t fall that much, we expect them to lose big cities at least. If not we’re thinking of living abroad,” said Alper Palabiyik, 30, a financial adviser.

“It will be a long night for us but a longer night for that dictator,” he said. Voing ends at 5 PM.

AK, which swept to power in 2002 on a notion to eradicate the corruption that blights Turkish life, hoped on Sunday to equal or better its 2009 vote of 38.8 percent and markets have steadied this week in expectation of such a result.

A vote of less than 36 percent, not considered likely, would be a huge blow for Erdogan and unleash AK power struggles. A vote of more than 45 percent, some fear, could herald a period of harsh reckoning with opponents in politics and state bodies.

Sinan Ulgen, head of Istanbul’s Edam think-tank, said hopes the polls may bring stability and clarity may prove unfounded.

“We have arrived at the stage where the opposition now challenges Erdogan’s legitimacy to rule not on the basis of electoral support, of him losing popular support, but arguing that he is no longer eligible and fit to rule until he fully answers allegations against him of corruption,” he said. “This is a new era for Turkey.”